Mike Kueber's Blog

January 27, 2014

Sunday Book Review #121 – Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch

Filed under: Education — Mike Kueber @ 4:37 am

A few years ago, I needed a primer on American education policy, so I read Diane Ravitch’s “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.”  In my summary of the book, I described her five conclusions as follows:

  1. Improper federal role in education.  The federal government isn’t responsible for education in America, so it shouldn’t borrow money to give to the states as bribery for education policies dictated by the federal government.  Ravitch noted that conservative Bush-43 expanded the role of the federal government in education, and liberal Obama completed the federal takeover, but these were mere incidental comments, and it was clear that she wasn’t interested in constitutional correctness.
  2. Proper federal role in education.  The federal government has a role in helping the states develop sound education policies.  For example, the federal government has facilitated the states in developing uniform standards.  Math and reading standards developed by 48 states (sans Texas and Alaska) were announced earlier this year.  Also, national testing enables states to compare the effectiveness of different practices.  But there should be no coercion or bribery, as currently included in Race to the Top (R2T) and Obama’s update of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
  3. Charter schools (and choice).  Ravitch usually bases her conclusions on objective research/studies, but her opposition to charter schools seems subjective, almost political.  She concedes that charter schools are effective for their students, but she worries about the deterioration of the public schools that are left behind.  (I think a good analogy is an aging neighborhood that people eventually abandon.  Gov’t. would prefer that residents stay in place and maintain their neighborhood, but gov’t. allows residents to vote with their feet and leave for better neighborhoods.)  As a political matter, I think Americans will insist on choice and competition, albeit with winners and losers.  It’s unfortunate that there will be losers, but America has to be about equality of opportunity, not equality of results.  Charter schools clearly improve opportunity for everybody.
  4. Testing (and accountability).  Ravitch concludes that making high-stakes decisions (such as firing principals and closing schools) based on test results will cause teachers and districts to “teach the test.”  I agree with that conclusion.  As Bob Davis used to say at USAA, weak managers will tend to manage to the metrics on which they are evaluated.  That is why we need to carefully design tests and then carefully use the results.  Small numbers (such as one teacher for one year) should have limited usability, whereas large numbers (a large school over several years) should be difficult to explain away if they are consistently bad.  Also, testing should not be limited to math and reading because other subjects are essential to a balance education – e.g., science and history.
  5. No Child Left Behind.  NCLB is a work in progress.  Although Obama campaigned against NCLB, I think he acted correctly when he recommended mending it, not ending it.  There are problems with testing and charter schools, but education in America would be hurt with their elimination.

More than a year later, I reviewed another book – “Class Warfare” by Steven Brill – that took Ravitch to task for her conclusions.   According to Brill, the American school system was failing because of teacher unions that followed their self-interest and resisted reform.  Successful reform would require:

  • Testing.  Measure teacher effectiveness, primarily through testing of students.  Ineffective teachers need to improve or be terminated.  Effective teachers need to be paid more and copied.  And the granting tenure needs to be tied to effectiveness.
  • Charter schools.  Parent choice with more charter schools is invaluable in improving schools.

With “Reign of Error,” Ravitch makes new arguments to defend the positions she took in her earlier book.  As she points out in her introduction, her purpose it to answer four questions:

  1. Is American education in crisis?
  2. Is American education failing and declining?
  3. What is the evidence for the reforms now being promoted by both political parties?
  4. What should we do to improve our schools?

In a nutshell, Ravitch argues that the only crisis in American education is that it is under assault by misguided reformers who want to implement reforms that won’t work.  (Sounds like FDR’s warning that all we have to fear is fear itself.)  She believes that the reformers are misleading the public into thinking that American schools are failing, and there are several fact-based chapters discussing test scores, achievement gaps, international test scores, high school graduation rates, college graduation rates, the connection between poverty and test scores, why merit pay fails, the pros and cons of seniority, the problem with Teach for America, the mystery of Michelle Rhea, the contradictions of charters, the failure of vouchers, curriculum, class size, and strengthening the profession.

Instead of the currently proposed reforms (testing, getting rid of ineffective educators, vouchers, charters), Ravitch suggests:

  1. Provide good prenatal care for every pregnant woman.
  2. Make high-quality early childhood education available to all children.
  3. Every school should have a full, balanced, and rich curriculum.
  4. Reduce class sizes to improve student achievement and behavior.
  5. Ban for-profit charters and charter chains.
  6. Provide the medical and social services that poor kids need to keep up.
  7. Eliminate high-stakes standardized testing.
  8. Insist that teachers and their management be professional educators.
  9. Public schools should be controlled by school boards, not mayors.
  10. Reduce racial segregation and poverty.
  11. Recognize the public education is a public responsibility, not a consumer good.

Ravitch has not written a book that fairly presents both sides of the argument, but I am persuaded by her that the American schools are not as bad as is often presented in the media.  The most problematic schools are found where there is a concentration of poverty and dependency, and although the kids at those schools will benefit from testing, accountability, and options for charters and vouchers, the ultimate solution needs to alleviate the poverty.

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